After a decade or so of what might be referred to as "mom roles"—the adoptive-mother-to-be in Juno; the pregnant girlfriend in Draft Day; the mother of a dying child in Miracles from Heaven—it is easy to forget that at the start of the millennium, Jennifer Garner was, arguably, the greatest female action star in Hollywood. Alias, Daredevil, Elektra, The Kingdom: Garner was as handy with a gun as she was at hand-to-hand combat.
Peppermint is, in its own way, a perfect confluence of the two halves of Garner's career. Garner plays Riley North, a harried mother whose cash-strapped husband and precocious tween daughter are gunned down by Mexican drug-runners. After the murderers are let loose by a legal system infested with cops on the take and judges on the make, she goes all Batman/the Punisher on us—wandering the Earth, learning muay thai and how to handle all manner of light arms—in order to be able to take her revenge upon returning to Los Angeles.
As a piece of filmmaking, Peppermint is particularly efficient. We aren't subjected to endless training montages, nor do we have to sit through handwringing about right and wrong or worry about motivations. As with similar flicks like John Wick and Taken, the justice of what she's doing is rarely called into question. Indeed, we reenter North's story after a five-year gap midway through her killing spree. At 100 or so minutes, this film is so tight we don't even have time for superfluous action sequences.
This isn't to say that the movie is pure adrenaline-pumping thrill ride. Director Pierre Morel and writer Chad St. John craft some nice touches here and there that allow us to intuit the world in which Riley North has found herself. The deference she receives from the residents of Skid Row in the film's early going; her choice to stick up for a boy being lightly abused by his drunk of a dad. Stripped of her motherhood by a pack of automatic-weapon-wielding thugs, she has adopted every unloved kid stuck on the bus-lines and homeless camps in the City of Angels. The one misstep is a tacked-on twist that adds little to our enjoyment of the film and makes no real sense, given what's come before.
Morel, who previously directed Taken, brings a sort of efficient kinetics to Peppermint. When the camera is in motion it is generally for a purpose—showing us where North's ire is aimed, guiding us through her slaughter of a gaggle of gangsters—but he often slows down, allows us to focus on faces. Garner on top of the aforementioned drunken dad, her visage a grim promise of pain. A terrified judge wired to explode, working through his history of corruption in order to determine who this vengeance-seeking woman is. A bitchy mom who wronged North in her previous life wondering just how crazy the gun-wielding one-time Girl Scout mom has become.
The camera can linger on Garner all it wants, as far as I'm concerned: She moves with a litheness and competence that is all-too-frequently missing from movies like this. Film-based gunplay, it seems, is just like riding a bicycle: once you've mastered the basics, a ten-year hiatus doesn't put much rust on the skills. You could put Garner in a Taken/John Wick-style high-concept action-thriller annually and I'd show up for each and every one of them.